French-ism and the Looming Conservative Civil War
Updated: Apr 11, 2020
There is a debate currently raging within Western conservatism that has the potential to erupt in a full-fledged civil war. Both sides—in my opinion—have legitimate beefs with the other side and come from intellectually-sound foundations. But one side—again, in my opinion—is largely occupied by representatives teetering on the edge of operating in bad faith and at risk of abandoning any semblance of conservatism whatsoever. Let me begin with what both sides get right.
What Both Sides Get Right
Here is where I believe both sides have merit: the conservative worldview has historically been riddled with tensions, not because it’s untrue but because it wasn’t developed by any one person or group of philosophers but was derived from millennia of Western thought reasonably demonstrated and discerned to be true. But because conservatism rejects ideological certainty and political absolutism, it ends up embracing voices that are “true” but also somewhat opposed to one another.
The greatest example of this inherent conflict I know of is the breach between a sort of Burkean traditionalism and a Lockean abstraction. For the readers who don't spend their weekends reading 17th and 18th century English philosophers, what that means in layman’s terms is that conservatives have long been defenders of Edmund Burke and his belief that politics was a matter of prudence and providence and general distain for some ideology that says all people at all times in all circumstances have a right to something BUT also defenders of John Locke in his teachings that all people at all times in all circumstances have a right to life, liberty, and property (what we call classical liberalism). Both intellectual traditions are complex, noble, and, in some sense, true. But they are also in tension.
At present, there is a rift in the conservative world that has been torn wide by the disruption of the Trump era. Trump is all about disruption and overturning the status quo. And the ripple effects have exacerbated conservatism’s inherent tension to the point where both sides barely recognize the other as being genuinely conservative. What’s at stake here is quickly becoming a war for what it even means to be a conservative.
Both “sides”—if we can call them that—begin with intellectually sound foundations and have—by my estimation—present-day representatives that are arguing a respectable viewpoint. The best present-day representative for what we might call Burkean conservatism that I know of is Patrick Deneen, political science professor at Notre Dame whose book Why Liberalism Failed beautifully articulates the fatalistic flaws in the liberal ideology espoused by John Locke. Deneen’s argument is complex and deserves at least a post all on its own, but it boils down to the idea that liberalism encourages disassociation from all other forms of obligations and associations to the point where there’s nothing left but the individual and the state, which ultimately leads to either authoritarianism or anarchy.
The other “side” might best be represented by attorney and journalist David French whose name was recently coined—admittedly as a pejorative—to describe this viewpoint. “French-ism” first appeared in last month’s issue of First Things in an article written by Sohrab Ahmari (more on that in a bit). At the risk of oversimplifying, I believe we could say that French-ism represents the classical liberal perspective, which proudly defends the abstract rights of Americans to enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, champions the rule of law, believes in due process, and basically holds that—no matter who’s in charge—we all benefit from a democratic system of checks and balances.
While I believe both “sides” to be true, I have long found myself compelled by the Burkean form of conservatism more than the Lockean variety. Regrettably, I also believe that those claiming to hold this Burkean viewpoint have largely hijacked a commendable movement and turned it into something far from conservative. Which brings me to where my admiration for both “sides” becomes decidedly more one-sided.
What One Side Gets Wrong
At the risk of sounding biased, I can’t help but notice that as each “side” aligns itself for the looming conservative civil war, one side appears largely represented by conservatives and the other does not. It is my contention that those on the Burkean side are moving so far in the anti-liberal or illiberal direction that they’re now even anti-conservative. Historically, Burkean conservatives had always agreed with Lockean ends (a society of ordered liberty) even if they squabbled over Lockean means (abstract reasoning). But today’s “Burkeans” (quotations very much intentional) seem to be aiming for neither order nor liberty but a sort of authoritarian, nationalistic, populous Trumpian Red State ripped from a Jon McNaughton painting.
Perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself, so let’s back up to last month. What history may very well record as the first volley in the conservative civil war began when Sohrab Ahmari decried David French’s approach (“French-ism”) as a weak and tepid “conservatism” and contrasted it against the—wait for it—“strong” “conservatism” of Donald Trump. French responded by accusing Ahmari of creating a strawman argument in misrepresenting his position and work (and having followed French for some time, I am inclined to agree). To quote French:
“What is singularly curious about this, and Ahmari’s essay on the whole, is the extent to which it depends on the creation of two fictional people: a fictional David French far weaker than I think I’ve shown myself to be over many years of fighting for conservative causes, and a fictional version of Donald Trump as an avatar of a philosophy that Trump wouldn’t recognize. It is within the framework of these two fictional people that my approach is allegedly doomed to fail and Trump’s approach has a chance to prevail.”
In what way did Ahmari mischaracterize Trump? Here is an excerpt from Ahmari’s original piece:
“With a kind of animal instinct, Trump understood what was missing from mainstream (more or less French-ian) conservatism. His instinct has been to shift the cultural and political mix, ever so slightly, away from autonomy-above-all toward order, continuity, and social cohesion. He believes that the political community—and not just the church, family, and individual—has its own legitimate scope for action. He believes it can help protect the citizen from transnational forces beyond his control.”
To even suspect the sort of motives or end-game Ahmari so seamlessly ascribes to Trump requires an astounding willful ignorance to the advents of the past three years. Do even Trump’s strongest supporters believe he represents “order, continuity, and social cohesion”? Is the thrice married playboy business cheat truly the only hope we have of restoring a political community of outstanding character? Does anyone seriously believe Trump would even comprehend what Ahmari is yammering on about?!
What the Heck Are We Supposed to Do?
I believe one of the great challenges of those who stand on the Burkean side of conservatism is a sort of inability to articulate what the heck we’re supposed to be doing. Conversely, one of the great strength’s of Deneen’s book Why Liberalism Failed is that he goes out of his way to say he’s not advocating another ideology to replace liberalism but rather better practiced politics at the local level. Some of his followers (Ahmari among them) err in that they ARE trying to replace the liberalism they detest with an untried Trumpian ideology that’s certainly no better and likely a lot worse.
The problem is that you can’t “nationalize” Burkean conservatism or fit it into an ideological framework. For Edmund Burke taught that the little platoon (the most local unit) was where our practical politics begins. This is a fine sentiment—and I strongly agree. It is something that must be ingested into the culture and be reinforced through the family, church, and local community. But Burke never intended for some central authority to “enforce” local norms. What’s more, central authorities aren’t capable of enforcing “local” norms—only national, one-size-fits-all norms. The irony here is that many of those who have inherited the Burkean tradition have grown to despise everything Burke taught, as seen here in an article by James McElroy or in the infamous Flight 93 Election post.
This side seems beset by a great deal of desperation—the idea that somehow things are so bad off that we must shuck the rules of the game and fight dirty. Take, for example, Will Chamberlain’s Against Peacetime Conservatism which argued that “peacetime conservatives”—Chamberlain’s version of “French-ism”—"complain that their colleagues have abandoned their principles. Wartime conservatives refuse to adhere to self-defeating principles.”
The “war” analogy is interesting for I think it strikes at the heart of what’s wrong here. Chamberlain, and far too many of his ilk, wrongly equate “principles” with “tactics”. The former should only change if one changes their worldview, the latter can change the moment one believes they’re not “winning”. It’s not that changing one’s principles can’t result in a win of sorts. In fact, we could easily win a war by changing our principles. For example, instead of storming Normandy beach on D-Day, the United States could have renounced liberal democracy, embraced fascism, and joined the Nazis in their quest of establishing a new world order. If we’re concerned conservative principles are “no longer winning” we could change our principles. Just stop calling it conservatism.
As for those who rightly recognize the principles must remain intact but accuse French-ists of bad tactics, the question remains: what exactly are they advocating? As Charles Cooke of National Review put it, “One of my biggest problems with the worldview that Sohrab Ahmari outlines in the course of criticizing David French—and, for that matter, with the general tenor of the Deneen-inspired ‘anti-liberalism’ that First Things is presently indulging—is that it gets extremely fuzzy when it reaches the questions, ‘What do we actually want?’ and ‘How do we intend to get there?’”
Ahmari’s post was inspired by his magazine’s manifesto of sorts entitled Against the Dead Consensus, which included a lot of declarations such as the following:
“There is no returning to the pre-Trump conservative consensus that collapsed in 2016. Any attempt to revive the failed conservative consensus that preceded Trump would be misguided and harmful to the right. Yes, the old conservative consensus paid lip service to traditional values. But it failed to retard, much less reverse, the eclipse of permanent truths, family stability, communal solidarity, and much else. It surrendered to the pornographization of daily life, to the culture of death, to the cult of competitiveness. It too often bowed to a poisonous and censorious multiculturalism.”
Here’s the thing, when I look over the demands of their manifesto (see the link above) two questions emerge: 1) What exactly do they believe they want that French-ism supposedly oppose? 2) What exactly do they believe they want that Donald Trump supposedly supports? But it is not at all clear what the French-ist did or didn’t do that’s got Ahmari and the gang up in arms. Yes, bad things have happened. Yes, there is much cultural decay that both sides bemoan, but what do we do about it?
If the chief complaint is that French-ist are just too nice or not trying hard enough, what would being adequately mean or trying all the harder look like? Does that mean we knowingly lie, cheat, and belittle? Does it mean we attend Leftist rallies and incite violence? Does it mean we rig elections? Should we begin killing people, or would nasty comments on social media suffice? And—here’s a question the illiberal side seems wholly disinterested in exploring—what are the likely outcomes of those types of behaviors? Would that win hearts and minds to the conservative cause or virtually ensure the movement’s extinction?
As for trying harder, I challenge you to find a conservative who’s worked harder for the cause than David French—the very man whose name is being used as the archetype weakling of the movement.
Two Sides of the Same Coin
Perhaps it’s not possible to sustain self-governance in the face of widespread societal decay. But count me among the side still fighting for ordered liberty to the last man standing and not the those that carve out for themselves a different flavor of Leftist statism, offering to solve all of the problems of the “right people” through some all-encompassing central authority.
As I said above, I most closely align with the Burkean variety of conservatism—the one that’s arguing for revitalized communities and associations to replace an ailing liberal ideology. But the illiberals who have inherited this noble tradition seem interested in destroying everything that remains (which is about as anti-Burkean as one can get). Some conservatives are trying to navigate the current decline of Western civilization, while others seem to celebrate—even work towards—all of the disruption that Trumpism represents out of a misguided sense they could somehow make the world anew. For those willing to listen, Burke had a thing or two to say about those who try to turn the world upside down (hint: it wasn’t “I alone can fix this”).
The inherent conflict in conservatism between Burkean and Lockean beliefs has historically been a great strength, not a defect. It has kept the more radical traditionalists and libertarians within the movement in check and humbled those who were wise enough to learn not to rely too heavily on their tiny stockpile of personal discovered truths. The great danger in this current rift is the potential it forever separates the two sides of this same coin we call conservatism.